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'Gurgaon aspires to be a US suburb'

December 22, 2007 11:00 IST
Are call centre employees in Gurgaon taught the phrase "Going Postal" and its cultural context as part of their training modules? In the mid-1980s, US post offices became the focus of a disturbing series of incidents.

At various times, some 20-odd postal employees went off their rockers. Each walked into his or her respective workplace with a gun, and shot at everything that moved.

More than 40 people died in these incidents of workplace rage and in US parlance, "going postal" describes a murderous assault by an employee in a workplace. Two of the reasons cited for the high incidence of such incidents in US post offices are interesting.

One is that postal employees experience excessive tension because they are in the frontline in terms of engaging the enemy, er I mean, the customer. The second is that carrying guns is officially banned in US post offices. So the death toll tends to be higher since victims cannot defend themselves.

In an Indian post office, the customer is more likely to experience the rage and frustration. But never mind. Both arguments are a little difficult to accept with question. For example, the retail and hospitality industries involve high levels of customer-interaction and this rarely triggers shootouts. (By the way, there have been fewer post-office shoot outs since e-mail caught on.)

The second argument seems ludicrous except in the American context. Madison Avenue execs and fast food outlet employees may not be explicitly banned from carrying guns to work; very few actually do. However, if there is a gun-totting maniac rampaging around, then it is certainly useful if the targets are also armed.

Another favoured killing-ground for loonies (usually students) is US school and college campuses. The high death tolls in such shootings are also often explained by the fact that people are banned from carrying weapons on campuses. Hence, if a shooter does get onto campus, it is difficult to stop him. (It is usually a "him" -- just one of those 20 post-office incidents starred a woman shooter and none of the school/college shootouts did.)

Untargeted, unmotivated assaults are unusual in India. Here, mass-killings tend to be targeted by caste or religion or carried out through anonymous IED blasts in public places. This may be because per capita gun penetration is much lower in India than in the US. Guns are difficult to acquire and ammo is both prohibitively expensive and of uncertain quality.

However, in this, as in other pop culture areas, the aspirations of young Indians closely mirror those of the mainstream US. Gurgaon is a particularly good example of an Indian town that aspires to be an US suburb. Those who can afford to live in gated communities with self-contained water and power supplies. The colonies have Anglo-centric names that reflect the residents' and builders' aspirations. Much of Gurgaon could be transplanted to, say, New Jersey and fit in seamlessly.

A large chunk of the population works for the IT/ ITES sector and works at staying au fait with US trends. The preferred mode of Gurgaon transport is a personal vehicle since public transport is almost non-existent. The shopping experience centres on malls.

The recent shooting there in an up-market school suggested that Gurgaon is edging even closer to the standard-issue US suburb. It was a classic US school shootout. There was a bully and two of his victims got their hands on a gun and shot him. Mercifully it was a targeted killing, not a random spray of bullets that took out several students.

This was probably the first time that such an incident occurred in an Indian school. It will certainly not be the last time. Sooner rather than later, there will be copycat incidents. I hope the school shooting triggers a thorough, searching review of gun-control enforcement but it's unlikely. Given the workplace tensions, sooner or later some BPO slave will go postal.

Devangshu Datta